Jeanne is too young to be humiliated by the camp as Mama is, but life at Manzanar changes her in other ways. For example, mealtime was always “the center of our family scene” before Manzanar; the family had a beautiful wooden table large enough to seat everyone and served fresh fish and home-grown vegetables. Papa sat at the head of the table and served everyone according to age.
Jeanne frequently reminisces about meals she shared with her family before internment. Mealtime is an easy way to show the dissolution of family life at Manzanar, since it’s a concrete, daily even that changes in specific ways during internment.
In the mess hall at Manzanar, the Wakatsukis quickly stop eating as a family. May has to bring food to Granny in the barracks, and Jeanne’s older siblings quickly start eating with their friends. Various family members trek across the camp to other blocks with better food; as the camp evolves, different chefs take over different kitchens and revel in the competition.
Although the family has resolved to stay together at all costs, the lack of privacy and familial independence at Manzanar encourages the various children to branch out on their own. Internment keeps everyone together physically, but it forces them apart emotionally.
Although they have to stay near Mama, Jeanne and Kiyo eat with groups of other kids; they enjoy the independence. After a few years, sociologists visit camps to study family life; on their recommendations, the camp mandates that families start eating together again. This edict is highly unpopular, because by then everyone has grown accustomed to eating with friends.
The sociologists’ verdict shows concretely that camp life is destructive to family cohesion—and that quick fixes, like forcing families to eat together, won’t fix the problem Manzanar has created.
Jeanne says that after years of life at Manzanar, her family “collapsed as an integrated unit.” Camp destroyed “whatever dignity or feeling of filial strength” they had before 1941, and it took them years to cultivate it again. Even after the camps close, the sense of estrangement continues; Papa has no money and can’t get work, so the family lives in a tiny housing project where there isn’t enough room to share a meal. By that point, many of Jeanne’s older siblings have moved to the East Coats for better jobs.
Again, Jeanne uses mealtime to show that the wounds of internment far outlast Manzanar. Family dissolution starts with the chaotic and unstructured life at Manzanar, but it’s exacerbated by the economic and material distress the family suffers after they re-enter society with no jobs or savings.
After she’s released from Manzanar, Jeanne writes a paper for her middle-school journalism camps, describing a family tradition of night fishing at Ocean Park Beach. After Papa and her older brothers catch the fish, they run back to the house where Mama fries them for everyone to eat. Jeanne concludes the paper by saying she wants to remember this activity “because I know we’ll never be able to do it again.” Jeanne acknowledges that the disintegration of a large family is in some ways inevitable. However, for the Wakatsukis, “internment accelerated the process.”
In some ways, Jeanne’s essay foreshadows her eventual writing of her memoir. In both cases, she lovingly evokes her family’s way of life and show how internment damaged it. For Jeanne, an important part of growing up is grappling with and learning to express the effects of internment on her childhood.
Soon after arriving at Manzanar, Mama gets a job. Anyone with any special skills is asked to work, driven by “community spirit” or “outright patriotism.” Jeanne’s brothers work as carpenters, construction workers, and reservoir operations. Mama had been a dietician before she had children, and her skills help cooks navigate the special needs of diabetics, new mothers, and infants. Mama is especially motivated to work because she needs to make money to pay the fees at the warehouse where she’s stored most of the family’s possessions.
It’s notable—and contradictory to allegations of Japanese disloyalty—that even the injustice of internment hasn’t dimmed the internees’ commitment to America and determination to build a society wherever they land. Mama’s determination to work is rooted in a practical desire to save the family’s possessions, and also the emotional desire to maintain the connection to her old life that those possessions represent.
Moreover, Mama is constantly worried about Papa. Letters arrive twice a month, in which half the writing is censored; for the first time in Jeanne’s memory, he addresses his wife as “sweetheart.” Jeanne constantly craves her attention, grabbing her legs to get it; but Mama is always distracted. Only lying in bed at night does she hug Jeanne and truly notice her presence.
Although Mama is good at meeting the family’s material needs, she’s too stressed out to be the supportive and attentive parent Jeanne needs right now. The psychological stress Mama endures is one of the reasons Jeanne cultivates her independence and becomes distanced from her family.
Unable to depend on Mama, Jeanne seeks attention elsewhere, taking her “first steps” into the world outside her parents’ realm. She’s able to observe and interact with lots of people, since due to crowded living conditions everyone spends their time outside and only goes home at night. Jeanne remembers an elegant woman who always wears a headscarf; later, she realizes this woman is actually half-black, hiding her hair and passing as Japanese in order to stay with her husband and daughter. Another woman powders her face with rice flour every morning; by Japanese standards, this is a mark of beauty, but Jeanne childishly believes she is “diseased.”
The new instability in her family is confusing to Jeanne, but it also makes her observant and attentive—qualities that will help her as she grows into a writer and tries to recollect her time at Manzanar. It’s also interesting that she views the made-up woman as unnatural or diseased. Her thoughts show how alienated she is from traditional Japanese culture, and how rooted she is in Anglo-American norms.
Jeanne also gets to know Sister Mary Suzanne and Sister Mary Bernadette, two Japanese nuns who have lived as Catholic missionaries in California for years, running an orphanage for Japanese-American children. At Manzanar, they have to care for all their orphans in one barracks, but they’ve also created a chapel and many programs for internee children. Eventually, Jeanne herself wants to convert to Catholicism but Papa, by this time returned from Fort Lincoln, forbids her. The Wakatsukis are nominally Buddhist and keep a small shrine in the house, but they rarely say prayers and Jeanne has never heard about religion until she meets the nuns.
Converting to Christianity is one of Jeanne’s first attempts to find a sense of belonging outside of her family, and to fit into what she sees as “normal” American society. As in later episodes, it’s Papa who intervenes to prevent it, and who insists that she maintain her allegiance to Japanese customs—even if he enforces these customs, like the Buddhist prayers, only nominally.
With no school to attend and no real home, Jeanne begins to study catechism with the nuns. She’s attracted not just by the candy they give out but by stories of female saints who die in brutal but honorable episodes. She’s fascinated by their stories, and while walking the mile back to her block she pretends that she too is a saint, “sweating and grimy, yet selflessly carrying my load.” One day, she fulfills her wish to suffer for her beliefs by passing out with sunstroke during the walk. After this, several months pass before she starts catechism again. Around this time, Papa returns from Fort Lincoln, and his arrival creates an enormous shift in family life.
Imagining herself as a saint is one way of glorifying the mundane hardships she experiences and giving meaning to them. It’s also a way to see herself not as part of a distrusted minority group but in the company of respected heroes. This foreshadows Jeanne’s high school attempts to escape the stigma of being Asian by reinventing herself as a “normal” American baton twirler. However, the unglamorous end to this fantasy hints at the limits of these reinventions.
Papa arrives at Manzanar in a Greyhound bus. Everyone goes to meet him except Chizu, who has just given birth. Jeanne will never forget Papa’s cane, which emerges from the bus before he does. Father has only been gone nine months, but he’s “aged ten years”; he’s underweight and has a new limp. Seeing him, everyone is astonished, and no one knows what to do or say. Only Jeanne, who hadn’t “thought of him much at all” during his absence, runs up to hug him without thinking. She knows she should be laughing, but for some reason she starts to cry instead. By this time, everyone else in the family is crying as well.
Even though Jeanne doesn’t intellectually understand the details and injustice of Papa’s imprisonment, she’s emotionally attuned enough to sense that something is wrong. Her lack of social inhibitions helps the rest of the family express its emotions through tears and react to Papa’s obvious debilitation.